What’s in a name?

‘Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish, you might say… I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this, from this, from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-ka-anda-lind-or-burúmë. Excuse me, that is part of my name for it; I do not know that the word is in the outside languages…’

‘Hill? suggested Pippin.
‘Shelf? Step?’, suggested Merry.

Treebeard repeated the words thoughtfully.

‘Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped.’

The Lord of the Rings, J R R Tolkien

I first visited St Baglan’s, Llanfaglan in June of 2018 and spent many hours there with Ifor Williams. Ifor is the volunteer at St Baglan’s but in truth the word volunteer does not even begin to describe his what he does for this place. He is our eyes and ears, but again, that doesn’t come close.

Ifor is the guardian of this place. He has studied and researched every inch and era of this church: from the long-lost silver (believed now to be in New Zealand) to the pattern of the lichen on the walls.

He has done so much to enthuse others about the place – he has led tours of the church for university scholars and enthusiasts, he has warmly welcomed visitors from all over the globe, he runs an excellent Facebook page called Hen Eglwys Llanfaglan dedicated to the church and he has written about the interesting history and features of the church in various magazines.

Welsh is Ifor’s mother tongue. When I visited, we spent a long time comparing words in Gaeilge and Cymraeg. Driving around North Wales, Ifor called my attention to the place names: what they meant, what they described, why they are an important part of our heritage – and a part that needs to be protected.

As a founder member of Cymdeithas Enwau Lleoedd Cymru (Welsh Place-Name Society), Ifor has an especial interest in this subject. The Society aims to “promote awareness, study and understanding of place names in Wales” and “consider the relationship of place names in Wales with the languages, landscape, history and culture of the country”

Recently, Ifor provided me with an interpretation of all our Welsh church names. Some of my favourites are listed below:

(Note: Llan is an enclosure usually associated with a church. The element which follows, most commonly a personal name, is mutated.)

    • Brithdir: speckled (brith) land (tir)
    • Llanfihangel Rogiet: church of Mihangel (Michael) in the passage of the roe-deer (rogiet)
    • Llangwm Uchaf: upper (uchaf) church in the valley (cwm)
    • Penmorfa: above (pen) the sea-marsh (morfa)
    • Penllech: capstone (of a cromlech)
    • Rhoscrowdder: the moor (rhos) associated with a crythor (player of a crwth or fiddle)
    • Tal-y-llyn above (tal) the (y) lake (llyn)
    • Tremaen: farm (tref) near the standing-stone (maen)
    • Ynyscynhaearn: island (ynys) associated with Cynhaearn

Of course, meaningful place names aren’t restricted to Wales. Our churches in England are situated in equally interestingly-named places, for instance:

Boveney means “upper island” and refers to the island in the River Thames next to the village. The Anglo-Saxon name for the village was Bufanege.

The spelling of Papworth St Agnes has evolved considerably: from Pappawyrthe (1012) to Papeuuorde (1086) to Anneys Papwrth (1241). And means, we believe, the enclosure of a woman or man called Pappa.

From A Dictionary of British Place-Names by David Mills other interesting discoveries are made:

    • Caldecote is a name found in many counties and means cold cottage(s). This could be a reference to poor construction, exposed situation or clay soil;
    • Huish is also a common name and refers to the measure of land that would support a family;
    • Mundon or Munduna (1086) means “protected hill” – an area of raised ground protected from flooding;
    • Matlock: Meslach (1086), Matlac (1196) describes an oak tree where meetings are held.

As Emerson said in 1844, “Language is fossil poetry”. “…The limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin”.

And just as geology varies with region, words, idioms, expressions vary too. Understanding the meaning of these names, the relationship between language and landscape, elicits a more exhilarating sensory experience.

Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words.[1]

Languages have grown, a complex web of words, evolved through thousands of people over thousands of years. Robert MacFarlane highlighted culling of words concerning landscape and nature.

Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions from the junior dictionary include: acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words that took their included attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

Are we at risk of losing the language to describe and understand these places?

Tim Robinson says: Contemplating how the centuries abrade the shapes that man’s “imperious eye” forces on the landscape, he writes: “If I insist on the symbolism I find in such places … it is because the flood of change threatens to bear away all such constructs of meaning, and it is the task of the topographer to shore them up. Without the occasional renewal of memory and regular rehearsal of meaning, place itself founders into shapelessness, and time, the great amnesiac, forgets all.” [2]

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  • MacFarlane, R. (The Guardian, 2015) The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape.
  • Robinson, T. (Penguin, 2011) Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom